NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: NASCAR Feels Later Is Better When It Comes To Scheduling

Did You Notice? … Not a single Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in 2020 will start earlier than 2 p.m. ET? The idea of a 1 p.m. ET start appears to have gone the way of the dodo bird. The last race originally scheduled for that early in the day was a playoff race at Martinsville Speedway back in October 2017.

The theory of late afternoon races appears to be sticking over the long-term. This transition has happened quickly; as recently as 2016, one-third of the races were scheduled for a green flag before 2:00. Major stakeholders believe a shift in timing will help build back television viewership.

On the surface, you could argue later times have helped push ratings up. 11 of the first 28 Cup races have posted an increase in viewership this season; barring a late collapse, audience levels will match last year. Five years into the TV contract and two years into these changes, fans know when and where these races are on.

The question is whether late start times are affecting attendance. It’s hard to gauge the numbers because NASCAR no longer publicizes official attendance figures after races. But NASCAR’s track arm, International Speedway Corporation, reported a 5% decline in admissions revenue through the second quarter of 2019. The decline, in part, was due to “lower attendance for certain NASCAR and other events held during the quarter.

That trend was matched by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., the company whose tracks comprise a third of NASCAR’s 36-race Cup schedule. They have admissions revenue down 7.4% through the second quarter, a decline they blame on “lower event-related revenues from reduced attendance and poor weather.”

Add it all up and those totals give us a fact-based decline for all but four races on the Cup schedule to date: Pocono Raceway (twice), Dover International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s enough to draw a reasonable conclusion that while TV ratings are stable, at-track attendance is still down slightly.

Would moving the races back to 1 p.m. ET make a difference? That’s the million(s) dollar question. Attendance has been a struggle for all sports across the board the past few years. Major League Baseball totals are down for four straight years now. Last season, the NFL saw its lowest in-person attendance since 2011. It’s clear a variety of other entertainment options are making the sports landscape more competitive; getting fans to commit to seeing games (or races) live is a constant battle.

The question is whether a start time of one or two hours earlier would turn the tide. As a fan, would you be more likely to go to a race if it had a 1 p.m. start time instead of 2 or 3 p.m.? We’d be interested in hearing from you how much it all matters. How many fans are showing up at which tracks takes on an even bigger level of importance next year considering NASCAR’s seismic schedule shift likely to occur in 2021.

Did You Notice? … Christopher Bell is stepping into a playoff-caliber Cup team in 2020? Leavine Family Racing missed out on the playoffs this season with Matt DiBenedetto but their performance since midsummer has jumped considerably. In the last 11 races, DiBenedetto has finished no lower than 21st, posting a playoff-like average finish of 12.3 with the No. 95 team.

Bell also is likely to have additional chassis, engine and financial support from Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s in their best interest to give a top prospect the best chance to succeed before he’s “promoted” into a JGR ride come 2020 or 2021. A similar trajectory was given to Erik Jones in 2017 with great success; he was 19th in points with a second team at Furniture Row Racing and won Rookie of the Year with ease.

But even Jones didn’t have the track record Bell brings into the Cup level. He has 19 wins in NASCAR’s Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck series the past three seasons. The 2017 Truck Series champion could add Xfinity to his resume in two months. (He currently leads the postseason standings). And, unlike Jones, Bell steps into a team already established instead of an expansion group created just for him. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff (remember his chemistry with Matt Kenseth?) also comes along and has the Cup experience to ease the transition.

These factors should raise expectations for Bell entering 2020. Since NASCAR’s new playoff format was created in 2014, only once (2016) have rookies made the field (Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher). Buescher is the lone driver to make the postseason and win a race on top of it.

I’d expect Bell to join that group in 2020. Winning a race should be a matter of when, not if.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….

  • It feels like Erik Jones’ disqualification hasn’t been given the weight it should. Could you imagine if a playoff team in a stick-and-ball sport was found cheating during a playoff game? JGR’s decision not to appeal is, in itself, an admission of guilt. One might argue the No. 20 team was pushing the limits, going rogue since it was on the outside looking in on the Round of 12 entering last weekend’s race at Richmond Raceway. But this organization also houses arguably the top three title contenders in Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. Anytime a level of “cheating” hits that close, it raises a level of suspicion you don’t want.
  • A lot was and should be made of Ryan Newman’s top-five finish at Richmond Raceway. He’s currently 14 points above the Round of 12 cutline over Alex Bowman heading to Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL. But a look at his road course record is pretty ugly: no wins and just three top-five finishes in 37 career Cup starts. Newman hasn’t led a lap at a road course since 2010. At least he has a seventh-place finish from Sonoma Raceway to hang his hat on from this year (and an 11th at the ROVAL from 2018) but let’s not start celebrating this Cinderella story just yet.

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John Cooke

I can speak only for myself, but later start times have a big effect on my attendance. I used to attend every Martinsville race which is three hours away. When they started at 1 p.m. I could leave at 5, arrive at the track around 8, the race would be over around 4:30, get home around 8 p.m. A long day but not bad. I went to a the LM 300 night race with a start time of 7 p.m., and got home at 2 a.m. I think my Martinsville days are over. I hate it, because I’ve been going to races there since I was 7 years old, and I’m now 66. I live an hour from the Richmond track and I got home at 1 a.m. this past Saturday. Of course, I’m from the lost generation of NASCAR fans who went for the racing, and put up with the uncomfortable seats and amenities. so, I guess no one from NASCAR cares.

Bill B

Race start time definitely matters if you have work on Monday. The later the race starts the less inclined I am to go if I have to work on Monday. If it’s a Saturday race or Monday is a holiday, then start time doesn’t matter to me. You see, having to take Monday off to attend a race makes the cost of attending unpalatable.

rg72

Agreed and even if you build Monday in as rainout insurance, this year we saw NASCAR stray from the customary 11am or 12pm local start time for races postponed to Monday. I remember one being 5pm (I think Michigan because of TV conflicts with the World Cup). I think there was another rescheduled for what seemed to be a random time.

wildcats2016

I completely agree, Bill B.

Jim VanSickle

Re: later start times. I live in north central Ohio, nine hours from Martinsville, a track where I missed only 6 of 32 races from 1985 thru 2016. I attend 6 to 8 races a year and Martinsville is my favorite track. But when they started holding the parking lots for one hour following the race, it was unrealistic to continue going to that track. Between a 3 p.m. race start and the parking lot debacle, I would arrive home at 5 a.m. on Monday. Back when the Martinsville races started at 1 p.m., I would get back home at or about 2 a.m. and still be able to get several hours sleep.

Matty

Bill B
I feel the same way – the later the start the greater chance I skip the race if it’s on a Sunday. On Saturday night, you can always expect a 7:30 pm start.

About that Martinsville 2017 race – coldest race I’ve ever attended since 1976. Glad it started at 1:00 pm.

Fed Up

Those “major stakeholders”, I assume, are the ones who make a living off racing. I guess when you travel by jet , and stay in motor coaches, that getting home to face Monday morning is not a priority If you have a police escort and don’t have to sit in traffic a few hours, life is pretty good. I would think that race fans travel much further than stick and ball fans who probably aren’t over an hour or so from home. I believe the NFL and MLB
still start at 1 & 1:30 for their games. The faltering NFL audience is a result of their own disrespectful players.

rg72

The most puzzling aspects are still the 3pm start time during the summer months at tracks with no lights.
What NASCAR has done is depress the market of fans outside a 2-3 hour radius of a track.
I always wonder whether more Eastern viewers are lost than Western viewers gained with these start times.
I’m still not buying this schedule overhaul that we keep hearing about come 2021.

Matty

RG72 – regarding the schedule overhaul in my heart of hearts, I’d get rid of Kansas, Chicago and Atlanta (because nobody cares) and replace them with Iowa, Nashville and Five Flags. Three more short tracks? Now that would be real racing!!

DoninAjax

The brainiacs in Daytona seem to alienate more fans than they bring in when they make “improvements” to their “product.”

wildcats2016

later start times definitely factor into my decision to attend a race.With a 1 p.m. start time, if I was traveling a distance (for instance traveling by air), I would only have to take one day of vacation time. With the later start times (my personal example is Martinsville), if I stay until the end of the race, I can’t make the last flight from Greensboro to DC. I said this before to someone on a NASCAR board and the response was – well just fly back on Monday. Yes sure I can do that but that costs me a night in a hotel AND I have to burn another day of vacation. When the start time was 1 p.m., there were a lot of race fans who could see the end of the race and then scramble to the airport – I know because I saw some of those same fans every flight.

With the start times varying and what channel is the race on playing into it – there are lots of times when I simply get busy and forget to watch and we no longer travel to races. IMO since I don’t like the rules, the faux championship and the way NASCAR is run, I voted with my wallet.

to each their own.

sb

Not only do the later start times impact fans who travel long distances to attend races, but not allowing for weather/darkness should be taken into consideration. The summer Daytona race is held during ‘monsoon’ season in Florida, when you can practically guarantee an afternoon rain shower. Not the most practical idea, since that means even longer while the track is dried (if they’re lucky), or postponing the race for another day. Football and baseball draw mostly ‘home town’ fans, not those who travel long distances to attend.

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